Despite what Simon and Randy said, the women easily outsung the men in the first week of semifinals
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‘American Idol” recap: The women outsing the men

American Idol has a clearly stated mission over the next three weeks: Winnow down its current crop of 24 semifinalists into a lean, gender-balanced pack of six men and six women. Because if there were, say, eight women and four men heading into the March 11 finals, all hell would break loose in the Idol nation. There’d be strongly worded e-mails, a perilous dip in the show’s ratings, and perhaps even rallies where fans could destroy their cherished Daughtry and Carrie Underwood albums en masse. Or at least that must be the great fear of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and his cohorts.

How else to explain the silly insistence on parity of the sexes? After all, this is a TV talent search, not a college athletics department; Title IX doesn’t apply. And it’s not like the show’s goal is to reinvent Robbie Carrico’s former prefab band, Boyz n Girlz United.

Okay, yeah, I know if Idol didn’t segregate the semifinals by gender, how else could it spread 24 performances (and factor in viewer voting) over two ratings-rich evenings? It’s just that I found it a little galling hearing Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell try to make the case that Tuesday night’s first set of performances by the top 12 men was on par with tonight’s showing by the top 12 women.

To be fair, ladies’ night was more solid than spectacular, but only one or two female contestants descended to the dank basement depths mined by Jason Yeager, Garrett Haley, Colton Berry, and Chikezie (I still want to add ”Eze”) on Tuesday. And the best of the women were every bit as exciting as current men’s-side front-runners David Archuleta and Jason Castro.

For me, the award for performance of the night went to Alexandréa Lushington. In a week where the judges kept using a certain R-word, the previously unheralded teenager infused her performance of ”Spinning Wheel” with the kind of funk and originality that — in an era of vocally unmuscular chart-toppers like Rihanna and Britney — was not just rella-ella-elevant but downright electrifying. I loved everything about Alexandréa’s performance — her jazzy suspenders and her ”dope outfit” (Paula’s words, not mine), her surprising twist of falsetto in the song’s latter half, and the way she boldly interrupted Ryan and jauntily cut off another interminable argument among host and judges. I’ll admit, Alexandréa was a few wonky notes short of perfection, but I couldn’t understand Simon’s criticism that she sounded like a ”horrible ’60s musical.” Isn’t it better to take some risks at this stage of the game than safely and dully hit every single note?

Similarly, Amanda Overmyer’s rendition of ”Baby, Please Don’t Go” may have had a couple imperfections, but the way she ripped into the bluesy track like a cheetah into a freshly caught impala left me whooping and giggling all the way through it. I realize that the rock & roll nurse is a little bit of a screamer and that, as Simon said, she’s going to have to prove at some point that she really is a great singer, but I’d also contend she picked one of the most challenging numbers of the evening. It takes a mastery of syncopation and vocal control to deliver this slice of swampy funk, even if the lyrics are sparse and repetitive.

Not only that, but Amanda’s totally unaffected attitude is a refreshing change of pace from the standard ”I’ll live and die for Idol” stance we get from the show’s contestants. That exchange where Simon thought Amanda’s scatting was a cover for botched lyrics and she expressed her incredulousness that he wasn’t familiar with the number was almost as funny as her deadpan comment about the hellacious car accident she’d had before Hollywood Week: ”Sorry for pulling out in front of you, dude.”

While at this point I’m really rooting for Alexandréa and Amanda to crack the top 12, there are six other women whose performances I’ll be looking forward to (or at least not dreading) next week. And while ranking the sextet is essentially an exercise in subjective tastes, that’s kind of what I’m paid to do, so here goes….

NEXT: The strong contenders

Asia’h Epperson grabs the No. 3 spot by an apostrophe over Syesha Mercado, not because she’s any more technically gifted but on account of being a more natural entertainer. For starters, Asia’h knows how to dress like a star; that violet tank with a black, beaded neckline was so fierce I actually accepted her ”I’m contestant nine” hand wave without clenching my teeth. And while I thought Asia’h suffered some pitch problems early in her rendition of Janis Joplin’s ”Piece of My Heart” (or ”Piece of My R,” as she pronounced it), I liked the way she infused the rock classic with a hint of gospel fervor and ended it with power and passion. As Paula accurately assessed the performance, Asia’h ”had some really good moments” tonight.

Syesha, on the other hand, seemed slightly less at ease during her cover of ”Tobacco Road” — a song that I personally find as dull as dry toast — but there’s no denying she nailed pretty much every note of the performance. Better still, the contestant I have regularly accused of being a shouter was mercifully restrained; this made her big, bombastic ending a real treat, as opposed to the final knockout blow of a vocal cage-fighting match. Still, Syesha is going to have to learn to hone her interview skills if she wants to win viewer votes. Saying things like ”I’ve been trying to stay away from the sick ones” when discussing your competitors’ struggles with the flu isn’t going to be a match for the smiling and cooing of America’s Next Top Plush Toy David Archuleta. Also, is it just me, or did Syesha totally steal Amanda’s audition scarf?

After Syesha, I’d round out the all-important top-6 women with Carly Smithson and Alaina Whitaker. Or maybe Alaina Whitaker and Ramiele Malubay. Or is it Ramiele Malubay and Carly Smithson? (See why I want more than six ladies in the finals?) It’s a tough call. On the one hand, all three ladies proved they have voices big enough to compete with anyone in the competition, but each one exposed an Achilles’ heel tonight.

For Carly, the troubles came down to song selection and styling. I don’t think there’s any way you can hear the sound of her sandpapery belting and deny she’s got the kind of talent a major-label record exec would jump at. But her take on the dreary, dated ”Shadow of Your Smile” had me agreeing with Simon that it was a total letdown, despite showcasing what Paula referred to as ”beautiful inflections.” Also, I am not a stylist, so I can’t really pinpoint what exactly Carly’s hair is crying out for — volumizer? extensions? a course of antidepressants? — but something needs to be done about it.

Similarly, my problem with Ramiele had nothing to do with the quality of her voice (lovely!) or her ability to hit every note of ”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” but, rather, with the fact that she didn’t bring much emotional depth or originality to Dusty Springfield’s classic. I know the judges and producers are obsessed with the ”big voice, little girl” angle — I half expected to see footage tonight showing the judges measuring her with a yardstick — but the whole thing sounded like nothing more than a really great cabaret act sung by a woman dressed like a slightly unprofessional office manager on casual Friday.

As for Alaina, I will not fault her disco-inspired yellow top or her very shiny, healthy hair. I won’t complain that she looks like Carrie Underwood’s slightly mischievous little sister. I can’t take offense with her ”I don’t want to go home on my birthday” vote-getting tactics. My notes on the performance say I was digging the slow intro to her ”More Today Than Yesterday” and was impressed by the power and control of her voice. It’s just, well, it all seemed a little forgettable compared to some of the livelier contestants who followed her.

NEXT: Can you feel the love?

The only other woman I’m betting will be totally safe Thursday night is G-rated nanny Brooke White. I thought the judges were overly kind to her middling take on ”Happy Together,” but I can understand why they don’t want her to go home, either. If she’d stuck with that acoustic, stripped-down intro all the way through, I might’ve kinda sorta liked her. But when you’re pitting a thin, quavery voice against a pack of banshee belters, you’d better make sure you outscore your opponents in the originality and arrangement departments.

If my calculations are right, the four women who’ll have the fewest votes this week are audition-round favorites Kristy Lee ”Did You Hear I Have the Flu?” Cook and Kady Malloy and vocally challenged beauties Joanne Borgella and Amy Davis.

Kristy Lee will probably survive to week 2 by virtue of her preexisting fan base, but her rendition of ”Rescue Me” was the evening’s most bizarre performance. I’m not exactly sure what she was trying to achieve by making wide-eyed, menacing facial expressions into the camera, but for whatever reason, I spent her entire performance thinking about a mash-up of perky Food Network host Giada De Laurentiis and The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘ robo-babe, Summer Glau. Perhaps this was my brain’s way of tuning out the bloody butchery of Fontella Bass’ classic?

Kady is my other bet to survive the swing of the Idol ax, mainly because I think there’s a small but passionate group of voters itching to hear her viciously funny imitation of Britney Spears’ vocal affectations. (Hit us, Kady, one more time!) Plus — and my ears may have been deceiving me on this one — while pretty much every note of her ”Groovy Kind of Love” missed the mark, I could tell she was trying to do something interesting with the melody. In other words, while she made it abominable, it was very much her own abomination. Score!

That leaves Joanne and Amy as my picks for the women whose ”journeys will end” on Thursday night. And if you’ll allow me, I’d like to send out some words of inspiration to them:

Joanne, there may be only three notes on the musical scale where your voice sounds pleasant, but not to worry: As a parting gift, you’re about to become one of the most recognizable plus-size models in America, and who knows, you might have a future in acting or TV presenting. Just, please, don’t do that to ”Say a Little Prayer” again.

Amy, you seem like a really sweet person, and I genuinely felt for you from the beginning of your interview package to the bitter end of your unspeakable cover of ”Where the Boys Are.” Watching you, I felt the way I do when watching a low-rated figure skater — you know, the one from Liechtenstein who’s ranked 86th in the world — as she falls again and again every time she attempts a jump or a spin or some fancy footwork on the Olympic rink. But as a parting gift, you’re now going to be the most recognizable trade-show model in Indiana, and your parents will always have those super-sweet T-shirts emblazoned with your lovely visage. Also: Your updo was rockin’. Please give Carly a couple pointers on your way out. She’ll thank you, and frankly, so will we all.

Readers, what did you think of tonight’s episode? Do you think Idol should hire 20 or 30 of us to help them expand their songbook selections for every decade and every genre, seeing how this week we already had two songs (”More Today Than Yesterday” and ”Happy Together”) get covered twice? Who were your favorite singers, and which two ladies do you think are on their way home?

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